Bunny Lee: ‘The main t’ree people was when I come a Englan’ forty odd years ago, right, was who now . . .? Mrs King . . . and . . . husband name Benny. Benny use’ to come a Jamaica too, yunno, an’ put out – a get record. Him use’ to put out anyt’ing wha Ken Lack [Caltone imprint] make, Rita an’ Benny, y’understan’ . . .
Q: ‘Rita and Benny King, R&B Records?’
BL: ‘Yes, Rita an’ Benny, right. Them did ‘ave a big distributing place from – dem was powerful people inna the business. Mrs King was a force to reckon with. Them use’ to have a place inna Stamford Hill. If she na sell the record is better yu come outta the business.’
BL: ‘When she talk everybody jump!’
Interview with Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee by Pete I on www.reggae-vibes.com
In 1959, Stamford Hill was a lot livelier than it is today. A good place to be a teenager. Full of cafes, like the popular E&A salt beef bar on the corner of Clapton Common and Stamford Hill or Carmel’s kosher restaurant a few doors further down on the other side of the street (oddly, the newish shop there is still called Carmel). Even Windus Road (just round the corner from the Mascara Bar) had three milk bars – you can still see the sign of one of them outside what is now a Hassidic pizza takeway with segregated queues, one for women one for men.
A lot of people would hang out and play pinball in ‘the Schtip’, the Yiddish name (I think it means ‘taking money’) everyone used for the amusement arcade almost next door to the E&A (it’s still there, with a different name and no pinball). As well as the grand Regent (where Sainsbury’s now stands), soon to be the Gaumont and finally the Odeon, you could take your pick of around eight other cinemas within half a mile.
Three years earlier, ten-year-old local girl Helen Shapiro was singing in a group called Susie and the Hula Hoops, along with a boy called Markie Feld, later to change his name to Marc Bolan. Two years on, in 1962, she’d have two number one hits. In ’59 she and Markie were both members of Stamford Hill Boys and Girls Club in Montefiore House (now replaced by a block of flats just south of Holmleigh Road), as were Alan Sugar, one day to get knighted for services to himself, and Malcolm Edwards, soon to become Malcolm McLaren.
And in only a few months’ time, they are about to get the first ten-pin bowling alley in Europe (click on image to watch its gala opening)
All that was missing was a good record shop, and in 1959 a Jewish couple called Rita and Benny Isen who had just changed their surname to King decided to open one. Rita and Benny: R&B Records. I read somewhere that earlier they sold records from a stall in Petticoat Lane but have no idea whether it’s true. For the first few years the shop was at 282 Stamford Hill (now a builder’s merchants), and then it moved a few doors up to 260 (now Top Pizza). By about 1963/64 they weren’t just selling records, they were releasing them on their own labels – first the parent label, R&B, and then a whole sprawling family of others, including Giant, King, Ska Beat, Hillcrest, Caltone, Jolly, and Port-O-Jam. Their most bizarre label was surely Prima MagnaGroove, devoted exclusively to the output of the Italo-American swing artist Louis Prima (slogan: Stay on the Move, With Prima MagnaGroove). That’s Louis singing ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ in Jungle Book – the king of the swingers.
At first their catalogue was an odd mixture. Their only big hit in the UK was Irish Country and Western, Larry Cunningham’s ‘Tribute to Jim Reeves’ in 1964. They did a bit of gentle/sunshine pop, including ‘His Girl’ by the Canadian band The Guess Who? which managed to get to number 45 in 1966. It’s been claimed they even released surf music but I haven’t found any trace of it. They were also the first to release (I think) a record by The Blue Flames (with Georgie Fame), before Columbia, before ‘Yeh,Yeh’: ‘Orange Street’ and ‘JA Blues’, the kind of music, as a commentator on this YouTube clip explains, that they were then playing in the Flamingo in Soho to, in Georgie’s words, ‘black American GIs, West Indians, pimps, prostitutes and gangsters’. And a few adventurous white mods from Basildon and Welwyn Garden City, according to this memoir by Mick Hall on the excellent mod history site, Jack, That Cat Was Clean. (click on discs to watch clips)
But that isn’t why they were so special. What was really important about R&B Records was that Rita and Benny were among the very first to release Jamaican music in Britain. Ska and rock steady, and blue beat. The Blue Beat label, owned by Melodisc, and Chris Blackwell’s Island , began at around the same time, and it’s arguable (and argued, in odd circles; it probably is a matter of days, not weeks) who was truly first. What is sure is that R & B released scores of great records on pretty much all their labels, from 1964 onwards. Artists included: Laurel Aitken, Dandy Livingstone, Jeanette Simpson, Junior Smith, The Itals, The Wailers, The Wrigglers, Jackie Opel, The Maytals, The Skatalites, Lee Perry, The Clarendonians, Delroy Wilson, Derrick Morgan, Don Drummond, Stranger Cole . . . and many, many more. You can find the (incomplete) catalogues of some of their labels on www.discogs.com. While Benny looked after the shop, Rita travelled to Jamaica to meet the musicians and buy the tapes.
In the early 1960s, there were very few places in Britain where you could hear or buy records of Jamaican music, and R&B on Stamford Hill had all the new releases, and not just on their own labels. So their shop became a mecca for young blacks, from Hackney, of course, but also from the rest of London and well beyond. Barry Service, who worked in the shop from 1970 to 1980, says that when he started there the place was packed on Friday evenings and all day Saturday, with people listening to records, and sometimes buying records – it seemed like a club as much as a shop. And Rita, with her beehive haircut, presided over it all, like a queen. The shop also became very popular – because they liked ska --with the early Mods. Penny Reel, who grew up here, knows every stone of the place and has the world’s biggest collection of R & B records and knowledge, sees Stamford Hill as the birthplace of Mod.
‘The grandfathers of these young stylists [Markie Feld and his friends] toiled in the tailoring sweatshops of Fashion Street fifty years earlier and their fathers own small outfitters in Kingsland Waste, so it is not at all surprising that their clothes are at the forefront of fashion and in the most modern Italian and French styles. In fact, this crowd refer to themselves as “modernists” and they are the forerunners of the gentile “mods” who emerge over the next few years with their sharp bri-nylon anoraks, scooters and op art imagery, and cause headlines at the Easter weekend holiday in Clacton in 1964.’
I think that ‘Mod’ more probably had multiple births, but certainly there were an awful lot of Mods, Jewish and gentile, in and around Stamford Hill. They would go to music venues further up towards Tottenham, like Loyola Hall (now some sort of Christian mission centre) where The Who played early on, and the Club Noreik at Seven Sisters -as you can see at the end of this clip of Unit 4 + 1 playing there in ’66. (click on flyer to watch clip)
Rita and Benny’s shop carried lasted for 25 years. They finally closed it in 1984, partly, it seems, because of ill-health. Barry Service kept in touch with them for a short while but doesn’t know what became of them. Nor do I. There’s only one photo I’ve found of Rita (attached), thanks to Penny Reel, and one of her and Benny with Larry Cunningham in Billboard magazine’s archives. I’d like to know more. Black music in Britain owes quite a lot to them, and it is about time they were celebrated. Stars of Stamford Hill. One day there should be a Blue Plaque outside Top Pizza . . .
PS: Stamford Hill in Song
The link below should take you to a song that has a tangential relationship to Stamford Hill Mods, or at least to Marc Bolan, ‘The King of Stamford Hill’. An oddity, whose significance, if it has any, is that it was co-written by David Bowie and Gary Oldham, and is the only song I know that is about Stamford Hill. Here’s the story, from Nicholas Pegg’s ‘The Complete David Bowie’.
"Before Tin Machine got off the ground in the summer of 1988, Bowie and his new collaborator Reeves Gabrels toyed with the idea of an album based on Steven Berkoff's 1983 cockney melodrama West. The project was abandoned, but the only completed demo, 'The King Of Stamford Hill', was salvaged for Gabrels's 1995 solo album The Sacred Squall Of Now.
"Most of the track was re-recorded in 1995," he told Record Collector, "with the exception of David's vocal, which I took off the demo and then manipulated and altered in a variety of ways." With Berkoffian obscenities aplenty and a cockney 'running commentary' provided by David's Basquiat co-star Gary Oldman, the result sounds like a punked-up variant of Blur's 1994 hit 'Parklife', replete with customary chains of squealing guitar sound from Gabrels. Dispensable."
Bowie and Bolan were, sometimes, rivals, and why else would Bowie and Oldman write a song about Stamford Hill? But Marc Bolan had been dead for ten years when it was written. Odd, as I say. Musically awful, anyway, and lyrically not to be played in front of the children (the lyrics are online HERE). I’m sure it should be ‘marshes’, not ‘marches’ as the place where the singer is taking his army – as in Lea Valley.
The intro, intoned before the dreadful guitar, is ‘Stamford Hill/ Four square miles of shit.’ Which is wrong, on both counts, Rita and Benny being among the many proofs.